Sol Duc Falls
|Scenery:||(4.5 / 5)|
|Difficulty:||(2.0 / 5)|
Sol Duc Falls may be one of the most famous waterfalls in the state of Washington, and for good reason. The Sol Duc River puts on quite a show when it braids into four channels that then plunge side-by-side over a sharp ledge and fall 37 feet straight down into a deep, dark chasm below. Then the accumulated river falls another 11 feet into another larger gorge before shuttling on downstream. Hikers willing to make the 0.8-mile trek through otherworldly old-growth forest can view the spectacle from a high wooden footbridge, under which the freshly fallen river quickly passes. Turning around and heading back to the parking lot is one option, but even better is turning the excursion into a 5.5-mile loop hike past some of the largest Sitka spruce and western red cedar trees on the planet on the way past lovely Lover’s Lane Falls upriver from Sol Duc Falls.
The trailhead is at the dead-end of Sol Duc Hot Springs Road, with ample parking right there. The trailhead is well marked with kiosks bearing information on backcountry travel in general and maps outlining the trails fanning out from the Sol Duc drainage. Within 150 feet of the trailhead, a series of twenty-eight stair steps heading downhill makes things easy. The surrounding landscape is a classic example of a temperate old-growth forest: Age-old nurse logs give birth to lines of smaller trees; fungus, moss, and lichens inhabit every possible niche; epiphytes (hanging “air” plants that get their nutrients from the sun and wind) hang off the boughs of small Sitka spruce trees and larger big-leaf maples; bunchberry, sword fern, salmonberry, and devil’s club crowd the edges of the trail.
At about a half mile into the hike, after crossing over the third of many small wooden footbridges, you can start to hear the sounds of the rushing river—the waterfall isn’t in sight yet but can’t be far off. Cross another wooden footbridge and go right at the trail sign toward Sol Duc Falls and Lover’s Lane. The Sol Duc River finally comes into view downhill and to the right, with a rough-hewn timber fence protecting hikers from falling into the river gorge.
Making your way downhill, stop to marvel at the Canyon Creek Shelter, a 25-by-12-foot log cabin with a dirt floor and an open front wall with a covered firepit. The shelter was built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1939 to “enhance the safety of visitors” to the newly created national park. An information sheet posted inside sheds light on the building’s original purpose: “As an early Olympic National Park hiker, imagine how happy you would have been to find this shelter after walking in the heavy rain wearing heavy cotton and wool clothing and perhaps carrying a cumbersome wood, leather, and canvas backpack!”
Past the shelter, the trail winds down some more wooden stair steps and eventually bottoms out at a magnificent 25-foot-long wooden footbridge high over the gorge at the bottom of Sol Duc Falls. Walk halfway across the bridge and look left to see Sol Duc Falls in all of its four-tailed glory. To the right look down and see the river rushing downstream through a tight canyon. Cross over the bridge and take in Sol Duc Falls from some additional vantage points. After exploring the vicinity of Sol Duc Falls some more, it’s decision time: go back the way you came (making for a 1.6-mile out and back hike), or see some new terrain and another jaw-dropper of a waterfall by looping around on the Lover’s Lane Trail (for a 5.5-mile hike).
To get to the Lover’s Lane Trail, hikers crossing over the bridge at Sol Duc Falls should turn right (west) and look for the trail sign marking the way to Lover’s Lane/Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort. The narrow and gnarled Lover’s Lane Trail makes the Sol Duc Falls Trail look downright civilized as hikers must watch their steps carefully. Massive uplifted root structures of fallen old-growth trees stand as testament to the power of nature—and a reminder to stay away from the forest during stormy weather.
After another 0.2 mile of slogging through the rough trail and drinking in the splendor of forest primeval, the sound of rushing water fills the ears and soon enough the trail funnels itself onto another large, rough-hewn wooden footbridge that utilizes one big log with its top shaved flat to facilitate walking to cover the 50-foot span across Canyon Creek. To the left slightly upstream is a smaller waterfall and to the right downstream is Lover’s Lane Falls.
What makes Lover’s Lane Falls unique is the fact that two huge boulders, each the size of a small cabin, at the top of a cliff break the path of the Sol Duc River into two rushing braids. A huge fallen old-growth tree is broken in two like a matchstick and stuck against one of the boulders thanks to years of water pressure bearing down on it. One braid of the river goes off to the right and falls into a relatively calm swirling pool about 20 feet below on top of a smaller cliff before dropping off again into oblivion below. The other braid shifts off to the left and takes a 53-foot plunge into the unseen gorge below. After exploring Lover’s Lane Falls fully, hikers should cross the footbridge and take the side trail to the left to check out the Upper Falls, which veil out across a wide rock wall and fall 13 feet.
Hikers looking to save energy can turn around and return the way they came for a 2.2-mile out and back hike or continue on the Lover’s Lane Trail and loop back around on another section of the Sol Duc Falls trail, making for a 5.5-mile hike all told. Either way, abundant groves of iconic Pacific Northwest old-growth trees throughout the area make traveling through on foot a feast for the eyes.
Follow Sol Duc Hot Springs Road 13.5 miles from its junction with US 101 to its terminus at the Sol Duc Falls trailhead. (In winter, the road is closed at the Sol Doc Hot Springs Resort, adding 1.5 miles to the hike.)
For more info, contact Olympic National Park, Port Angeles, WA; (360) 565-3130